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Martha Aliaga: The Charismatic Teacher

1 September 2017 23 views No Comment
Val Nirala, ASA Publications Coordinator

    When asked about Martha Aliaga, the word that comes to mind for most people is “teacher.” It seems everyone who knew her has a story to tell illustrating her special charisma and passion for teaching.

    Roxy Peck—emerita associate dean of the college of science and mathematics and professor of statistics emerita at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo—recalls this story:

    “Let Me Tell You About My Daughter” is my favorite Martha classroom demonstration. She would say, “Let me tell you about my daughter,” and then she would say she wanted to sew a blouse for her daughter using the fabric pictured on the cover of her book [Interactive Statistics]. She would hold up a large piece of that fabric and say she didn’t want to buy a lot of it before she was sure her daughter would like it, and she wondered how much she should buy as a sample to show her daughter. She would hold up a tiny swatch that clearly wasn’t enough to capture the pattern, and everyone would say, “No, no that isn’t enough.” Then she would hold up a slightly bigger piece—still not enough. And another—still not big enough. But then she would hold up a piece that was about 5 inches by 5 inches, and every one would say, “Yes, that’s enough.”

    Students got the idea of a sample being representative of a larger piece. But then (and this is what I think is the brilliant part of the lesson, because it addresses a common student misconception), she would say, “Well, I only need 1 yard of fabric for the blouse, but I think I may also want to make some curtains for my daughter’s room out of the same fabric. To do that, I will need 10 yards of the fabric, so if I am going to show my daughter a sample, I had better get a sample piece that is 10 times as big.”

    Students clearly saw this wasn’t necessary and would often argue with her, saying she didn’t need a bigger piece of fabric for her sample. She was then able to explain that the size of a sample needed to get a good sense of a population doesn’t really depend on the size of the population, if the sample is well chosen.

    That was typical of the way she challenged students to think about statistical concepts—by relating them to everyday things they could relate to.

    Martha Aliaga and Rebecca Nichols in Slovenia, 2010

    Martha Aliaga and Rebecca Nichols in Slovenia, 2010

    In Their Own Words
    Knowing Martha Aliaga meant having stories to tell. Here, colleagues relay experiences with her that continue to make them smile.

    Rebecca Nichols, ASA Director of Education

    I was particularly excited to go with her [Aliaga] to the International Conference on Teaching Statistics in Slovenia in 2010, which was my first international conference. We met at Reagan National airport and were all set to board our flight when something happened with the plane and they had to cancel the flight. They scrambled and got us on another flight to Amsterdam, leaving instead out of Dulles, that would get us there in time to catch our connection to Slovenia. It was going to be tight, so we jumped in a taxi and headed for Dulles.

    We didn’t have any bags to check, but had to wait in a huge line to get our new boarding passes. It was looking like we just weren’t going to make our flight and would then miss our international connection when Martha chanted, “I’m from Argentina!”

    She proceeded to work her magic as only Martha could by cutting in front of the huge line without making people mad, showing her special United card, and kindly working it out with the agent so we could quickly get our tickets and barely make our flight.

    She had to do something similar for the other legs of the trip, because part of her ticket was mistakenly cancelled when they changed our tickets. She managed to get us where we needed to be. We made it to Slovenia just fine, and she did a great presentation, as always.

    Rick Peterson, ASA Professional Development and Chapters and Sections Manager

    We had launched the Census at School website and Martha and Rebecca [Nichols] planned a series of Saturday workshops for high-school teachers in the Washington, DC, area at the ASA office. These workshops were to introduce the teachers to Census at School, give advice on how to collect data, and provide exercises the teachers could use in their own classrooms.

    It was Friday afternoon before the first workshop and I could hear Martha and Rebecca in the office next door going over logistics. I looked up from my monitor and saw Martha and Rebecca in my doorway looking, for lack of a better word, sheepish.

    My name is Rick, but when Martha said my name in her Argentinian accent, it always sounded like Rēk. So, Martha said, “Rēk, Rebecca and I have a favor to ask you.” I already knew what the question was, and I knew I would capitulate because it was Martha after all, so I replied, “Martha, what time would you like me to be here tomorrow morning?”

    Already a longtime member of the ASA, Aliaga joined the staff in August of 2003 after a distinguished career at the University of Michigan. While at Michigan, she won the First Prize in Statistics for Innovative Programs Using Technology and two awards for excellence in teaching. She also coauthored Interactive Statistics and was elected an ASA Fellow.

    Aliaga’s tenure at the ASA brought about the ASA’s Educational Ambassadorship Program, which Aliaga and the Committee on International Relations in Statistics launched in 2005. Within the program, an ambassador attends continuing education courses during the Joint Statistical Meetings and then returns to his or her country to teach the new subject matter. This way of passing statistics education forward has allowed statisticians to reach students in every corner of the world.

    Martha also believed in starting statistics education early and was a tireless advocate for K–12 curriculum in statistics. Now under the direction of the ASA/NCTM Joint Committee on Curriculum in Statistics and Probability, she created the Meeting Within a Meeting Statistics Workshop for K–12 math and science teachers and STEW, a peer-reviewed repository of lesson plans. She also introduced Census at School in the United States and created the K–12 statistics education webinar program. All these initiatives deliver training to K–12 teachers or provide resources for their success.

    Jerry Moreno, assistant professor emeritus of statistics at John Carroll University, says, “Behind her incredibly warm smile, was a mind continuously thinking of new ways to help students and teachers learn statistics. I recall when she was formulating STEW that I had some reservations about it. But she would listen and then reframe the project. Her insights far exceeded mine, as STEW has become a useful resource of lesson plans in statistics for teachers.”

    Martha was also a strong supporter of women and minorities and served as president of the Caucus for Women in Statistics in 2002. Additionally, she participated as the only instructor for a National Science Foundation program for middle-school minority girls in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and was invited to give workshops in many countries.

    Current ASA Director of Education Rebecca Nichols says, “I always loved going to statistics education conferences with Martha because she seemed to know everyone and it was like she was introducing me to her family. Martha was a master teacher who could explain complex ideas with simple, clever, and often witty examples. She loved teaching, loved students, and loved people.”

    Rick Peterson, ASA professional development and chapters and sections manager, says, “Working with Martha was probably the fondest time of my professional career. Her drive and passion for statistics education was infectious. I remember the Meeting Within a Meeting and Census at School programs when they were just preliminary ideas Martha had. But once she decided these were programs we were going to implement, there was no stopping her.”

    Aliaga passed away in October of 2011; however, the programs she imagined continue. STEW was integrated into Statistics Teacher, an online journal for statistics educators published by the ASA/NCTM Joint Committee on Curriculum in Statistics and Probability. Meeting Within a Meeting was held for the 11th time and the 12th Educational Ambassador made it to JSM in Baltimore, Maryland, this year. And last but not least, US Census at School just released a random sampler that generates samples from the entire messy U.S. database for teachers who wish to provide their students with messy data to clean and investigate. All these programs and more can be found on the ASA’s website.

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